All manner of murals, signed photographs, and quotes adorn the hallways of East Mississippi Community College, the setting of Netflix's six-part college football documentary series "Last Chance U" that streams Friday. One in particular, glimpsed during the second of two episodes provided for review, stands out: "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."
It's a Bible verse, from Proverbs, seen on screen just for a few seconds as offensive coordinator Marcus Wood can be heard employing other scripture (from the Book of Job) to coach a group of the players at the heart of this compelling series. And while religion is understood to be widespread in the college's small town of Scooba (population: 716), the reason that verse resonates stronger than most is that it doubles as an overriding mission statement for East Mississippi's highly successful junior college football program. For the recruits, after all, the game itself is a religion.
These are remarkable players who've seen their edges — and prospects — dulled by some misstep, be it drug use, bad grades, criminal behavior, or plainly screwed-up priorities. Rising stars knocked from upward trajectories, Division I players who couldn't keep up under pressure, or talented athletes who just missed the cut for one reason or another — all of them are down, but far from out, leaning on their faith in the sport as they aspire to make it back. For the majority of the Lions, East Mississippi is a rest stop, a place for them to refocus and recalibrate before advancing to a better, more nationally respected university.
To put it another way, they are in dire need of some sharpening, which is where two key figures come in.
Coach Buddy Stephens, who's led the Lions to three national championships, is responsible for guiding the team through what's turned into a 24-game winning streak as the series opens. He's a thoroughly committed and oft-coarse 'Bama boy, occasionally boiling over with red-hot rage but rarely distracted from the minutiae of what's unfolding on the field. He's faced with the tricky task of whipping players into fighting shape without crushing their spirits. In striking that balance with players already weighed down by whatever trials and tribulations brought them to EMCC in the first place, Stephens sometimes resembles a cuddly teddy bear with sharp, gleaming claws.
More sweet-natured — saintly, in fact — is athletic academic adviser Brittany Wagner, who labors to ensure the recruits maintain high-enough grades to continue playing. A figure of uncommon cheer and tenacity, she's the glue holding the Lions together, doling out pencils to unprepared students and handling with grace the exasperation of one-on-one meetings in which disinterested athletes routinely drown her out with music or unplug from their surroundings.
In Stephens and Wagner, the Lions have not only enthusiastic proponents and mentors but also stern guardians. The series focuses on the team's 2015 season, depicting one game each episode, which gives it plenty of time to explore the day-in, day-out realities of playing for East Mississippi Community College, from flirtations with female co-eds to the tedium of college dorm life in a small town — as well as to impart just how parental those two administrative figures really are.
"Last Chance U" primarily centers on four athletes in need of such role models. Running back DJ Law is a star player, but he finds himself struggling academically amid other pressures, like a baby son he's unable to see while taking classes. Defensive lineman Ronald Ollie is similarly troubled in the classroom, showing up to a meeting with Wagner with new headphones instead of notebooks, although his work ethic on the field is second to none.
The two other focal points are quarterbacks John Franklin III and Wyatt Roberts, locked in a friendly yet fierce competition for the starting job that Stephens is more than happy to stoke. Franklin is the more natural athlete, faster and stronger with a formidable throwing arm, but lacks the diligence and dependability that Roberts, after years of hard work, can bring to the field. Alternating between the two, Stephens does an excellent job of quietly nudging each to strive for the spot.
"Last Chance U" moves quickly through the first two of its six hours, with director Greg Whiteley ("New York Doll," "Mitt") emphasizing moments of gridiron glory at the expense of diving deeper into the psychology of the athletes. And though that feels like a missed opportunity, it can't be said that he doesn't know his audience. For those with a love of the game, this peek inside a premier small college program is a stimulating, singular all-access pass.
LAST CHANCE U
On Netflix, streaming Friday